Like most 12-year-old boys, Alfonso dreamed of being taller. By the time he hit his early teens, he was already around 5’9” or 5’10”, but he knew he’d want more than biology was likely to deliver.
“My idols were Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant growing up, and my dad was really tall as well,” he tells InsideHook. “I was like, ‘Man, it’d be cool to be that tall.’”
While other kids hung from the monkey bars during recess in the hope of stretching themselves out a few inches, Alfonso was busy researching a more practical way of achieving his lofty ambitions: cosmetic limb-lengthening surgery.
It’s a real procedure in which an internal device is inserted into the bones in the legs. Post-surgery, patients then use an external remote control to stretch their legs by one millimeter per day, gradually increasing height by up to three inches per surgery. Some patients may opt for a second surgery, enabling a height increase of six inches total.
Limb-lengthening surgery has been around in some capacity for more than 80 years, says Dr. Kevin Debiparshad, an orthopedic surgery specialist who heads the LimbplastX Institute in Las Vegas. But the procedure has grown in popularity and recognition in recent years thanks to improvements in medical technology, including the 2018 introduction of a full weight-bearing, FDA-cleared implant, which Dr. Debiparshad was only the second surgeon to place.
When Alfonso first began looking into the procedure as a preteen, it was something of a pipe dream. “Back then, the technology was a lot more rudimentary,” he tells InsideHook. Not to mention, “I was like 12 or 13 years old, which meant I had no money,” he adds.
Flash forward 15 years or so, and Alfonso, now 28, 5’11” and willing to drop upwards of $75,000 on an extra three inches of height, had much safer, more realistic limb-lengthening options available.
“With advances in technology and surgical technique, we are able to more safely provide cosmetic limb lengthening for increased height,” says Dr. Debiparshad, who tells InsideHook he’s seen a steady increase in patient interest and volume since opening his practice in 2018, and is on track to double the 22 surgeries he performed in 2019 by the end of this year, pending no further COVID-19 disruptions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those patients — more than 85 percent, says Dr. Debiparshad — have been men.
Cosmetic surgery may break your bones (but height will never hurt you)
While one of Dr. Debiparshad’s goals is to make the procedure more mainstream, increasing awareness of surgical limb lengthening hasn’t necessarily corresponded with a destigmatization of the procedure, which is often met with shock and criticism from those who see the surgery as a drastic and potentially dangerous measure to undertake in the name of cosmetic improvement.
“It is stigmatized,” says Alfonso. “They know that you have to break your legs, essentially, in order for the procedure to happen, and that seems extreme to a lot of people who don’t understand just how advanced the technology is.”
The procedure, as Alfonso describes it, does indeed involve a break in the bone. “Then they insert an internal nail through your femurs,” he explains. By gradually increasing the width of the gap each day, bone growth is stimulated to fill in the fracture, slowly elongating the leg.
According to Alfonso, who traveled to Las Vegas for the surgery back in May, it’s not as dramatic as it sounds. “It wasn’t that bad. It was pretty painless.”
When I spoke with Alfonso last month, he was about six weeks into the recovery process, which he described as a “pretty smooth” one, with Tylenol-manageable pain levels.
But that experience is far from universal, and the procedure isn’t without its risks and drawbacks.
Limb-lengthening surgery gained some attention last year after Prachi Gupta penned an essay for Jezebel about her brother’s sudden death from a pulmonary embolism after undergoing the surgery in Europe.
Dr. Debiparshad says that while pulmonary embolism is a complication that can occur with this kind of surgery, it’s a rare one he has yet to see at the LimbplastX Institute, and a general risk with all types of surgery.
“I believe all surgeries carry some risk with them. Especially when considering an elective cosmetic procedure, these risks must be carefully weighed,” says Dr. Debiparshad. More common risks associated with limb-lengthening surgery include the bone healing too quickly or not quickly enough, muscle tightening, and the loss of some athletic ability, he explains.
“This does take a toll on your body,” Alfonso admits, despite reporting a relatively smooth and painless experience thus far. “With this procedure, you do have to put your life on hold for a little bit of time, but it’s a blip. It’s a small portion of time in the grand scheme of things.”
“Remember,” says Dr. Debiparshad, “you’re trading this height improvement for something; you don’t get it for free.”
The height thing
However shocking the procedure may seem to outsiders, it’s not hard to imagine why it’s an attractive option for the men who choose to undergo it.
“The desire to appear taller, particularly for men, has always been a hot topic in modern-day society and social norms,” says Dr. Debiparshad.
Indeed, even in our presumably body-positive era, you don’t have to look too far to find jokes targeting short men. Despite the recent popularity of an internet subculture celebrating “short kings” as sexual icons, much of the conversation surrounding male height still tends to figure men on the shorter side as less sexually or romantically desirable than their over-six-foot counterparts.
Meanwhile, over on dating apps, users are able to filter prospective matches by height, and many men — particularly those who clear the not-so-tacit six-foot rule — are wont to include that stat right in their bio, often followed by something to the effect of “because apparently that matters.”
Along with penis size, height is one of few aesthetic areas in which men tend to shoulder the brunt of society’s unrealistic expectations. While the body-positive movement seems to have finally made some strides, however small, in correcting the harmful societal messaging that has long driven women to drastic measures, jokes and criticisms about men’s height seem to remain fair game.
Body shaming can be harmful regardless of gender, and fears of literally falling short of society’s height standards may contribute to many men’s decision to undergo limb-lengthening surgery.
“Obviously height is something that’s really, really important for a man to feel confident,” says Victor Egonu, who underwent the procedure back in 2012 and now speaks publicly about surgical limb-lengthening on the YouTube channel Cyborg-4-Life. “Men need to fill that alpha role.”
And while men may be victims of these warped societal demands, the pressures of toxic masculinity can sometimes manifest in more insidious ways. Prachi Gupta’s Jezebel essay linked her brother’s obsession with height to certain far-right ideologies he’d adopted within the Men’s Rights movement, and the seemingly drastic nature of the procedure is reminiscent of the trend of extreme plastic surgery in the incel community that Alice Hines wrote about for The Cut last year.
Indeed, not unlike the incels Hines wrote about, men in the limb-lengthening community tend to cite an improvement of their romantic prospects as a benefit, and sometimes a goal, of undergoing the procedure.
“If you talk to most girls, they’re going to say they want a guy that’s at least 5’10”, if not six foot and up,” says Victor. “Height is a big, big factor for that initial chemistry, and when you’re trying to determine whether or not you’re going to have a romantic partner in the future, then that’s something that’s really going to play into these men wanting to get taller.”
Proponents of the procedure often tout surgical limb-lengthening as a life-changing way for men to combat these insecurities, gain confidence and achieve their full potential. Like the diets that were relentlessly marketed to women before the body-positive industrial complex made the lip-servicing leap from an emphasis on “weight loss” to “wellness,” gaining an extra three to six inches is supposed to enhance all areas of a man’s life, from professional opportunities to romantic pursuits.
While Dr. Debiparshad acknowledges that some patients may be undergoing surgery in order to better fulfill a certain societal standard, he says that reasons vary “from a boost in self-confidence to improved physical capabilities — all of which change lives.”
Alfonso, who, at a pre-surgery height of 5’11”, is aware that plenty of shorter men probably envy his starting height, says he never felt any societal pressure to be taller.
“I never felt self-conscious about my height,” he says. “I’ve never had somebody rag on me because I was short.” But while he may never have experienced height-shaming first-hand, he acknowledges that it’s alive and well in society.
“Now that I’m talking about it, I feel bad because I know people who have felt that,” he says.
In fact, there are plenty of shorter men who argue that people of Alfonso’s height shouldn’t even be eligible for the surgery at all. After appearing on the Cyborg-4-Life YouTube channel, Alfonso says he “caught a lot of flack” from men of shorter stature.
“It’s crazy to see that people within the community are attacking him,” says Victor, who likens the strife to a “civil war within the community.”
But Alfonso is sympathetic to their distress. “For me, [the surgery] will just make me a couple inches taller, but for them, those inches mean literally the world for a lifetime of happiness — which is beautiful, you know?”
Maybe he’s born with it, maybe it’s body dysmorphia
Unfortunately, for those who are so distressed by their perceived height limitations that a few extra inches seems like the key to everlasting happiness, the problem at hand may be more psychological than it is physical.
Height dysphoria, a form of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) that clinical psychologist Ellen Katz Westrich has defined as “a dissatisfaction with one’s stature that affects a person’s mood and thoughts about themselves,” probably isn’t overwhelmingly common in the general population, says Dr. Debiparshad.
“However, in practices that do this type of work, it is seen more often,” he tells InsideHook. “Patients who show signs of BDD are generally not good surgical candidates and should be evaluated by a mental-health provider to further understand the issues, and see if they qualify for other types of treatments.”
Dr. Debiparshad says all candidates for limb-lengthening surgery are screened for signs of depression and body dysmorphic disorder.
“This surgery can enhance an already well functioning individual, but will not cure a mental, psychological or an emotional state that patient might be experiencing,” he says. “Cosmetic surgery can not solve personal problems, nor can it make you a new person, but it can add to greater self-confidence and added sense of well-being.”
But as a woman who has spent the vast majority of my life trying to alter, destroy or escape my body — and perhaps, in all likelihood, doing some combination of those things at once — I wonder how one can ever really draw the line between wanting to change something about themselves to increase confidence and well-being, and wanting to change something about themselves to become a new person.
It’s easy to argue that cosmetic limb-lengthening surgery is an unnecessarily drastic reaction to toxic societal ideals of masculinity, but is it really anyone’s place to police another person’s relationship to their body? Who gets to decide which reasons are the right ones for surgery, and which are not?
A common criticism leveled at the current body-positivity movement contends that the ideology, or at least the commodified version of it most brands have been forced to adopt in recent years, makes a business out of shaming women for being ashamed of the very bodies they’ve been encouraged to be ashamed of, all under the guise of promoting (or selling) “self love.” As Rachel Sennot put it in a recent tweet, society “shames women into hating every aspect of their bodies, waits till we internalize it and then shames us for hating ourselves.”
And while, as a woman, I certainly can’t pretend women aren’t uniquely and disproportionately shamed for just about every aspect of our lives, people of all genders are subject to similar manifestations of this insidious shame cycle. In a society in which we continue to openly shame and mock men for being under six feet tall, how can we blame them for wanting to be taller, and perhaps going to drastic, or at least expensive, surgical lengths to do so?
I ask Victor if, in normalizing this procedure, we risk reinforcing the toxic societal expectations that may encourage men to seek this option in the first place. Should the onus really be on men to stretch themselves into society’s good graces? Or is it on us to combat these warped societal demands?
It’s nothing he hasn’t thought about before.
“I wish we could change society,” he says. “But in the end, obviously that would be an uphill battle.”
Right now, says Victor, our best bet is probably to work on destigmatizing this surgical solution many men are increasingly seeking. If nothing else, it may help people begin to understand the kind of pressure men face when it comes to height.
“I think the best way to do that is to further publicize this procedure and show that, hey, a lot of these people do it because of the societal pressures.”
After all, he adds, “at the end of the day, we all do something because of societal pressures.”